Sunday, March 4, 2012

Loyola Turns Laughs Into Respect For Its Play

No one is laughing at Loyola's basketball program now, and as its coach Jimmy Patsos tried to convey that message he had to pause for several seconds to refrain from crying.

No one is laughing at Loyola now, not after the Greyhounds advanced to the  MAAC tournament's championship game on Monday, by virtue of Sunday's 70-60 victory over Siena, for the first time since 1994 (when it won) and just the second time since it joined the conference in 1989.

No one is likely even claiming that the program is merely "respectable" any longer, the description used by Patsos after his team's ouster from the MAAC tournament a year ago.

"Now we need to take the next step," Patsos said back then.

Consider the next step taken.

"Getting 20 wins ... that was the big thing, what people talked about," said Patsos, whose team is now 23-8 overall. "That's what we talked about when we finished 15-15 last season.

"They year before I got here this program was 1-27, and Loyola is too good a university to stay 1-27. We knew we had gotten halfway up the ladder, but that the next few steps were tougher. I just didn't want everyone laughing at us," Patsos added, taking about 20 seconds to wipe some tears away before completing the thought.

"I don't think that anyone is laughing at Loyola now."

No one is laughing at Siena, either.

Not at a team finished seventh in the preseason poll, voting done before the Saints learned two promising front-court freshmen would be ineligible this season, that their returning starting point guard (Rakeem Brookins) would miss the season with back issues, that two other expected members of the front-court rotation (sophomores Trenity Burdine and Davis Martens) would miss the entire season with injuries, and that another promising freshman (DaVonte Beard) would leave the program after 10 games).

Not at a team that despite all that and despite playing with just six players after Beard's departure still finished 14-17 overall including a quarterfinal-round victory in overtime against third-seeded Manhattan that bled over into early Sunday morning.

"The story of this team is something that should be put out there nationally," said Saints' coach Mitch Buonaguro. "We played most of the year with just six guys, and played today against a team of 12 guys (Loyola actually used nine players Sunday).

"We have to forget today and remember what this team accomplished throughout the year. That's what should be remembered, not today."

"Of my four years, this is the one the year I'll be most proud to look back on," said Saints' senior Kyle Downey (17 points vs. Loyola). " I know in my first two years we had the NCAA appearances, but this year we achieved more than we ever had.

"No one expected us to win more games than we did last season when we had the Player of the Year on our team, but we did. Considering all the players we lost ... anyone at the start of the season who thought we'd do this was crazy."

"We had a great year," added Saints' senior forward O.D. Anosike, the national rebound leader. "This wasn't just a good year, it's a great year."

For sure, Sunday's meeting brought together two feel-good stories of the season. In the end, Loyola just had a little more of everything, including energy, to pull away from a lead Siena cut to three several times early in the second half.

When the Greyhounds got three-pointers on three consecutive possessions  (Dylon Cormier, Shane Walker and Robert Olson), it had a 11-point lead with 14:13 remaining and Siena never got closer than seven again.

"They had more energy," added Downey. "They had 10 guys, and we didn't have that. It was the same for us last year (winning a tournament opener in a late-night overtime contest and, then, not playing as well the next night). It was good to get here, sure, but (playing late in an emotional OT contest Saturday) hurts you in the long run."

"Mitch (Buonaguro) did a great coaching job with his team this year," said Patsos. "We were lucky that they ran out of gas."

Loyola moves on to beat Fairfield in Monday's 7 p.m. championship contest with a trip to the NCAA tournament the prize to the winner.

"We came from 15 down to beat them at their place, and they clobbered us at our place," said Patsos. "They just beat us the moment they walked into our gym that game. But, that's OK. It's one to one with the rubber match tomorrow.

"That both of us are here is no fluke. It's No. 2 (seeded Loyola) vs. No. 4 (Fairfield). I'm sorry Iona (the top seed) lost, but now it's us and Fairfield for the right to go to the NCAA.

And, if Loyola can pull that off, the sounds of laughter around the Baltimore school will be ones of joy rather than ridicule.

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